University CIOs enjoying new authority since pandemic

IT directors share their perspectives on the digital transformation of higher education, in new Ucisa and Microsoft paper

University chief information officers (CIOs) and their teams are experiencing “newfound visibility and authority” since the Covid-19 pandemic caused higher education providers to switch to online learning.

In a white paper published by Ucisa, the member-led professional body for digital practitioners in education, and Microsoft, IT chiefs said they were now enjoying a higher profile within their institutions because of their role in enabling remote operations from March 2020.

In some universities, the white paper reports, IT departments were traditionally viewed as ‘delivery’ teams with a mainly reactive, operational role and little connection to wider organisational strategy.

Now, say university CIOs, they have more authority and visibility within their institutions and have become key advisors to the board and faculty, participating in strategic decisions about the future delivery of teaching and learning.

Ucisa and Microsoft conducted in-depth interviews with 14 CIOs and heads of IT at universities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The white paper’s key findings:

  • IT staff enabled remote operations for just under three million students, lecturers, researchers, academic leaders and support staff at a pace never witnessed previously across the UK
  • University CIOs remain in broad agreement that the higher education institutions set to be most successful in this new era are those that can harness the benefits of remote learning – combined with the best elements of being on campus
  • The newfound visibility and authority CIOs have enjoyed through their role in moving their institutions onto remote learning has meant any notion of them being simply a “delivery team” is now null and void
  • University CIOs are conscious of not wanting to accrue “technical debt”. Having prioritised short-term solutions to address immediate needs, they now recognise that further digitalisation must be driven strategically to ensure interoperability and security is built in
  • While there is work to be done to facilitate a blended approach that yields pedagogical, operational and financial results, CIOs are best placed to support on a long-term digital strategy as the sector continues its transformation

Thanks to the heroic efforts of university and college IT staff at every level, the almost herculean task of enabling remote working for just under three million students, lecturers, researchers, academic leaders and support staff, was achieved at pace in March this year – Deborah Green, Ucisa

“This joint report highlights the key role that CIOs and the teams they lead have played in enabling the higher education sector’s response,” said Deborah Green, CEO of Ucisa.

“Thanks to the heroic efforts of university and college IT staff at every level, the almost herculean task of enabling remote working for just under three million students, lecturers, researchers, academic leaders and support staff, was achieved at pace in March this year.

“This is in addition to moving the delivery of higher education and research fully online. As one vice-chancellor put it, ‘our IT team delivered four years’ worth of digital strategy in six weeks, enabling our whole operation to continue.’

“Having accomplished the initial challenge, CIOs found the IT departments they lead are now more valued in institutions; with staff at all levels more aware of the significant role they play. They have been quick to build upon the momentum, fully appreciating the opportunity this presents to accelerate the delivery of a truly transformational digitalisation strategy.

“CIOs understand the impact that a move to world-leading hybrid learning can bring to the sector, reinforcing the reputation of higher education in the UK, which contributes £95 billion in gross output for the UK economy”.

Read the white paper here.


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